RDA 2008: East

This year, designers in the East reported
A trend that has long been gaining momentum:
handcrafted design. “We’re all so webbed
out,” says David Warren, a founding partner
of Tank Design in Cambridge,Massachusetts.
“The hand is back.” The movement toward
the lo-fi look means more “silk-screen, old
paper textures, and illustrative or handwritten
text,” according to Mark Burrier, a designer
in Myersville, Maryland. Ana Benaroya, who
owns a one-woman firm in East Brunswick,
New Jersey, notes the irony of increased
computer use resulting in a resurgence of—
and respect for—handmade work. “I’ve
that more and more designers are
incorporating hand-drawn elements even
as the computer becomes a bigger part of
our lives as designers
or illustrators. This
proves that nothing
can replace the hand.”

Young designers are fueling this interest
by looking at a host of unlikely craft
sources, from Raw magazine to antique
typefaces. Dan Shepelavy, a creative director
of 160over90 in Philadelphia, finds the
development extremely
exciting and a good
omen for design: “There is a veneration of
process, of connoisseurship,
craft, like I’ve
never seen before. That it’s now present
in commercial work is amazing! I’ve been
waiting for it for so long.”

David Warren believes that the handcrafted
style reflects, in part, our mounting
about global warming and the need
to take conservation and environmental stewardship
seriously. “We try to be as green
as we can be. Some of that has rubbed off on
the aesthetics.” Says E. Rachael Baird, an
of Tilt in Baltimore, “The world is being
shaken up by environmental issues, so
there’s more focus on content. … [Aesthetic]
elements used to be first.”

While graphic design continues to be
a critical part of creating sales and branding
for private companies and their products,
several designers have noticed that groups
promoting social causes are also increasingly
turning to the skills of graphic artists.
“The use of design as an agent of change or
as a catalyst
to encourage more pro-social
is nothing new, but it seems to have
become more ‘normal’ and is showing up
says Tim Ferguson-Sauder,
director at Gordon College in Wenham,
Massachusetts. At the same time, he
says, “I see a lot of design projects that exist
as more of a framework created to house
this new content. There is more of a need
for design
to access this content in the most
efficient and intuitive way.”

Designers in the region have also found
that clients are coming in with more definite
ideas about what they want, says Annie Milli,
an art director at the Baltimore firm Siquis,
in part because of the proliferation of design
blogs. Matthew Neff, manager of the print
shop of the Common Press at the University
of Pennsylvania, attributes the rise in client
participation to do-it-yourself desktop publishing
programs. “Many people consider
themselves designers and have an idea of
what they would like things to look like or
have a digital mock-up before meeting with
me and my design team,” he says. “It is a
much different first meeting than before the
desktop publishing craze. Imagery is talked
about and moved around much more rapidly
than before, and the client takes more ownership
over an initial concept before handing
it over to the designer.”

Yet according to Baird, requests from
clients depend largely on their industry.
Energy companies, for example, don’t yet
have a clear idea of their needs because the
industry itself is changing so quickly. At Tilt,
where one of the main clients is American
Paper, the designers say that large, corporate
customers tend to have a sure idea of what
they want from design. At the same time,
firms in the Northeast are finding that their
clients are demanding more branding services,
often making design firms the functional
equivalent of advertising agencies. Ann
Casady, owner of Casady Design in Yarmouth,
Maine, says that her clients now believe
design is an integral part of branding, not
second fiddle to content: “All of my clients
are talking about strategic planning. The role
of the graphic designer has changed to appreciate
and understand this much bigger
economic picture that includes marketing
and strategy.”

Meanwhile, designers are learning
their own lessons and beginning to promote
themselves with greater savvy. Greg Chinn
of Jargon Boy in Fairfield, Connecticut, finds
that more designers are developing products
for themselves. His company created a set
of hip alphabet flash cards that convey the
firm’s mid-century modernist sensibility (J
is for “jet age,” L is for “lounger”) and made
for a de facto self-promotion.

But no matter who they’re working for,
designers in the East are seeing substance
and style gain equal value. “Designs seem
to be getting smarter and smarter and less
about pretty,” says Milli. “They’re leaving
more for the viewer to figure out, posing
intellectual questions through the work.”

This article appears in the December 2008
issue of